Mullaperiyar and unfinished rail projects dominate campaign

With the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)’s expelled leader M K Alagiri stirring a hornet’s nest, openly targeting the party’s official nominee and one of its veteran leaders in south Tamil Nadu, Pon. Muthuramalingam, contesting the Theni constituency in the coming Lok Sabha polls, politics in this upland segment has taken an edgy turn.

And Mr. Alagiri, at a recent private function in the district, even indirectly blessing two of the key rivals of the DMK in the race for Theni -- the Vaiko-led MDMK’s K Azhagu Sundaram, and the sitting Congress, M.P., J.M. Aaroon Rashid -- has made the DMK look far more vulnerable, giving credence to the emerging ‘Alagiri factor’ in the polls.

Though Mr. Alagiri somewhat seemed to have softened on his younger brother, M. K. Stalin, saying differences with the latter was only at the policy level, the battle for Theni this time might simultaneously test out the efficacy of the much hyped veto power of the DMK’s Madurai-based former south zone organising secretary and a former Union Minister.

Known as Periyakulam before the delimitation prior to the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, Theni is poised for an absorbing five-cornered contest this time. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which is banking on its traditional ‘Mukkulathor’ community base and of other OBC groups here, has fielded an agriculturist and son of the soil, R. Parthiban, a native of Koozhaiyanur village.

The constituency is particularly prestigious for the AIADMK as Theni district has produced three Chief Ministers – M. G. Ramachandran, the present incumbent, Jayalalithaa, and O. Pannerselvam -- besides several Ministers who enjoyed considerable clout in the Tamil Nadu Cabinet.

The Congress candidate and sitting M.P., Mr. Aaroon Rashid, who shot to fame in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls defeating T.T. V. Dinakaran, the once powerful relative of Sasikala, close aide of the AIADMK supremo, is trying his luck for a third time now. But the Congress is friendless and also has to contend with the anti-incumbency factor against it. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s J. Ram Prakash of Goodalur is also in the fray.

Clearly, the biggest issue in this predominantly agricultural constituency is the row over the Mullaperiyar dam and Theni district being cut off from the country’s railway network in 2011. The inordinate delay in implementing the Bodi-Madurai broad gauge conversion project had escalated its cost to Rs.272 crore from Rs. 164.41 crore. All the political parties have had to address both these issues in the campaign.

For the railway project, the Centre had sanctioned Rs. 15 crore in 2009. The Railway Minister, Mallikarjun Kharge, who inspected the project in Theni in February, at the fag end of his tenure, simply blamed the Tamil Nadu Government for not sharing the cost and promised to grant Rs. 15 crore to Rs.25 crore next year for the project.

Cardamom growers and traders need this rail connectivity badly to dispatch their produce to upcountry markets, while the district needs more infrastructure to boost economic growth in the region. Linking Theni to the famous hill shrine of Sabarimala in neighbouring Kerala has been another major demand of the people here.

There seems to be no solution in sight to increase the level of the Mullaperiyar dam, the main source of water supply to five southern districts. Further, denial of permission by the Kerala Government to do even maintenance work at the dam and constant obstacles to movement of agricultural products, cattle and poultry to Kerala from Theni, have angered the farmers. Rampant sand mining in Vaigai and Mullaiperiyar rivers has worsened the situation.

Problems of the handloom and power-loom weavers also remain unresolved in this constituency, formed by the Assembly segments of Bodi, Cumbum, Periyakulam, Andipatti, Sholavandan and Usilampatti (the last two are in Madurai district). With such a litany of woes, truly, all parties face an uphill task in convincing their voters this time.